I’m really going to struggle to put down on paper my enjoyment and learning over the six days spent on a Derbyshire farm during lambing. “I could have stayed forever” would be a good summary. I’ll try to be a bit more structured though and avoid waxing lyrical about sheep. In all honesty I’ll struggle – this placement has done a lot to cement my interest in livestock medicine and I wish I could spend more time learning about it before applying to uni.
The farm I visited is set in the Derbyshire hills on the edge of the Peak District and home to a mixed flock of approximately 180 ewes; mostly mules and Swaledales but also Welsh Mountain, Derbyshire Gritstone, Badgerface, three Jacobs, the Teeswater, a Masham and a Dorset horn. Five Texel tups and one Llyn were put to the ewes with lambing having started in late March. My understanding is that a mixture of hill breeds like the Swale and lowland breeds like the Texel produces a lamb with lots of advantageous traits. Lowland breeds contribute characteristics like multiple lambs per ewe and good milk yield to feed them, not to mention meat-type bodies on the lambs. From the mother’s side (either a pure hill breed or a mule ewe) comes the ability to cope with harsher conditions and good mothering instincts.
Each day followed a similar pattern. At 7am I would arrive and feed the cade or pet lambs. These were all multiple births whose mothers’ could not sustain all their babies; the very smallest had been abandoned but the others were struggling to feed enough, for example where a ewe had a single teat and twins to feed. After a cup of tea we would start moving around the barn to ring the tails on day-old lambs, castrate tup lambs and spray them up with numbers to match their mothers. At this point we would also record the sheep’s ear tag number, three numbers relating to lambs which were how many she had, how many she was turned out for and how many she scanned for, and any difficulties or anomalies with her giving birth. These families remained in the barn until the lambs had slept off the pain of the rings and we’d turn them out 12-24 hours later. Some ewes received extra treatment at this point such as a wormer for recently purchased stock.
Now would be a good time to mention the layout and lambing arrangements on the farm. I learned that sheep can be kept indoors or outdoors for lambing but each has pros and cons. Indoors, sheep are easier to check on and get accustomed to the human presence, but a disease burden can build up in their accommodation. Outdoors disease is less of a problem but ill health and lambing difficulties are much harder to spot, plus the sheep are more easily disturbed by human visits. Whilst I was on the farm the sheep had the run of the barn and farmyard due to the wet weather, only going out into the fields once their lambs were about 36-48 hours old and definitely mothered up and feeding properly.
After ringing the lambs we would do a variety of jobs including spraying newborn lambs’ navels with Teramycin (an antibiotic spray), turning out families to the paddock, fetching straw and haylage, bedding down the cow shed, cleaning pens, fetching corn, driving round the fields in the tractor to check on the sheep, feeding heifers and repairs to pens. About 1PM I’d feed the cade lambs again, most often sheep formula but sometimes colostrum or milk from a ewe if the lamb hadn’t got the taste. Teaching them to bottle feed involved folding a lamb into my lap, opening the mouth up as I would for a horse but much tinier and working the bottle in – they’d get the idea at that point and a day or two later would be standing to drink and mouthing the bottle themselves. When my mum came to visit I think she had a vision of me with human babies, making sure their bottles were the right temperature on my wrist.
Of course, at any time a sheep might deliver lambs or get into difficulties. Sometimes we just seemed to turn around and find a sheep with a brand new family whilst others we would be aware of for some time, often ending with us helping those who weren’t getting on with it. Most commonly these were first time mothers who required a lot of assistance to deliver their lambs. I’m pretty sure my arms got a better work out than going to the gym but thankfully they all came out OK and I only had to use the lambing ropes and snare once. The other ewes who needed assistance were those whose lambs had worked themselves into an interesting presentation. Thankfully there weren’t too many of these – a couple who came back legs first, one with a foreleg back and just the one who had her back to the world. I could have sworn she had a tail at both ends at one point but eventually I found a head and some forelegs and out she came. Sheep who I’d really had to fish around inside got a shot of antibiotic in their shoulder after lambing to try and prevent any infections.
Mid afternoon we would start making sure any loose families were penned up to protect the lambs during feeding. With so many sheep in the barn we moved some mothers to another shed whilst their lambs got used to life outside the womb. We’d clean up the troughs and drive out all the expectant mothers before we filled them. Sheep corn, I learned, is 18% protein (in this case) and made partly from biscuit and bakery by-products. It’s also a very useful bribe for tamer sheep when carried in overall pockets. Mothers in pens would be served dinner and then we’d open the gate for a crazy ten minutes of ewes trying to find EVERY piece of corn put out for them.
After feeding the ewes would lie and chew the cud in and around the barn. Penned up families could come out and mix with the others. This time of day was really peaceful and I really enjoyed walking slowly through all those heavy ewes making sure they were all OK. Some of them were so very pregnant they barely wanted to move – one particular brown faced ewe kept me hanging on all week and I even resorted to tickling her belly to try and move her at one point. I’ve never felt anything stretched quite so tight! Another day the Teeswater sat down in front of the tractor and I had to persuade her she could lie somewhere else.
Finally I’d give the cade lambs a third feed and go home around 7PM. I’m well aware that my 12-hour days were getting off lightly; after tea, the farmer checked them again and then did a final check and feed of cade lambs at 11PM. He’d be up again at 5AM to check them and only get a nap before starting properly at 7AM. I also realised that lambing is definitely a family affair; sometimes a sheep needs two peoples’ assistance and in that case nothing is sacred, I hear you can even be summoned out of the bath to deliver a lamb!
On my last day, we went out to the barn so I could say some goodbyes. A ewe had just lambed a single and we’d expected her to have twins, from her scan and the size of her lamb. When she didn’t show any signs of a second lamb we realised a big Texel cross ewe had stolen her other baby! I’d been told this could happen but not seen it yet – lambing ewes had got interested in others’ lambs but never actually taken them. This ewe was very difficult to separate from her kidnapped lamb but eventually we returned it and penned the thief up at the other end of the barn until she could forget.
I was so sad to leave on the Friday night and will definitely go back to visit. It was so lovely of the family to let me come along for a week and they made me feel so welcome, for which I’m really grateful. I have to stop writing before I include a whole lot more random sheep stories, so I’ll end with a picture taken from the farmyard of the new lambs turned out in beautiful Derbyshire. Thanks for reading!